Using bad virus for good battery life

Thursday, December 9, 2010, 12:41 by Tech Correspondent

Imagine using your laptop for two days straight without a charge, or your Kindle e-book reader needing a charge only once a year. How about if you could use your smartphone’s jazzy applications everyday but charge it only once a week?

Sounds like technology from a futuristic, sci-fi movie? It’s not; the future is here already. Researchers at the University of Maryland in the United States have harnessed the “self-renewing” and “self-assembling” properties of a plant virus to create a new generation of faster, smaller and highly efficient batteries.

virus battery photo

Photo: Nickel-coated tobacco mosaic virus on a silicon wafer.

The rigid, rod-shaped Tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), which under an electron microscope looks like uncooked spaghetti, is a nasty virus that devastates tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetation, apart from the obvious tobacco plant. But in the lab, scientists have discovered that they can harness the virus’ characteristics to build tiny components for the lithium ion batteries.

“They can modify the TMV rods to bind perpendicularly to the metallic surface of a battery electrode and arrange the rods in intricate and orderly patterns on the electrode. Then, they coat the rods with a conductive thin film that acts as a current collector and finally the battery’s active material that participates in the electrochemical reactions,” the university explains in a news release.

The result is that the capacity of a battery to store energy is greatly increased. The new batteries have up to an astounding 10-fold increase in energy capacity over a standard lithium ion battery. An eco upshot is obvious as the potential for storing solar power would also increase.

The research throws open a plethora of options for software developers who were till date limited by constraints of space. For, the batteries could be of the same energy capacity as today, only 10-times smaller! The micro-batteries could change mobile and space technology radically.

“The resulting batteries are a leap forward in many ways and will be ideal for use not only in small electronic devices but in novel applications that have been limited so far by the size of the required battery,” said Prof. Reza Ghodssi of the University of Maryland.

In case you are worried about using a virus-infested battery, the university scientists assure us that the TMV virus becomes inert during the manufacturing process. Even if the battery explodes, the last thing you need to worry about would be the virus skeletons.

And as we wait as the researchers find a way to scale up this invention to meet industrial production needs, tobacco growers will finally be able to contribute something more positive to the society.

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